Great Irish Writers: Marian Keyes

Claire Allan makes the case for the best-selling Chick Lit author who is happy to be known as such

Following a Libraries NI evening of lectures to ascertain the greatest ever Irish writer - in which Carlo Gebler advocated Francis Stuart, Anita Robinson argued for Brian Friel, Brian McGilloway spoke out for Seamus Heaney and Garbhan Downey made the case for Van Morrison - we continue the debate. Here, author Claire Allan on her best-selling women's literature pioneer, Marian Keyes.

Writers aspire to many things. We aspire to reach out to people - to evoke in them a reaction and an outpouring of emotion. We strive to entertain, but perhaps also to educate. We strive to change lives, even if just a little bit and even if just for a moment or two.

Of course, there is a part of us that craves a certain degree of success and longs for a list of bestsellers the length of our arm in a variety of countries and a plethora of languages. For many writers that is what marks success. So, arguably a writer who has achieved all of this must be among the greatest in the land?

Marian Keyes is certainly one of Ireland's most successful authors. From relatively humble beginnings (a three book deal with publishing giant Poolbeg on the basis of the first three chapters of Watermelon) she has soared to heights of international recognition.

Her books continue to rocket directly to the top of the bestseller lists without passing go or collecting £200 as they fly off the shelves. She is, enviably, a household name, but her success lies deeper than the units sold or chart positions smashed.

What Keyes has done is take a genre of writing and turn it joyously on its head. Chick Lit (a phrase she embraces) has become more than that bog standard 'woman falls in love with boss while shopping for nice shoes' stereotype.

Arguably much of that transformation has been down to Keyes - it is perhaps obvious why she wanted to write something just a little bit more 'real' than traditional women's fiction fodder.

In her non-fiction works Under the Duvet and Further Under the Duvet (Cracks in my Foundation) Keyes writes about the crippling self esteem issues that have plagued her from childhood, despite having been surrounded by a loving and supportive family.

In her 20s, she turned her back on a burgeoning law career, moved to London where she worked in an accountant's office and fell into a period of dark depression and alcoholism. This culminated, as she wrote in Further Under the Duvet, in an attempt to take her own life. Indeed, it was her rehabilitation from her alcoholism that inspired Keyes' third novel, Rachel's Holiday, about one woman's struggle with cocaine addiction.

Despite the weight of the topic, the book is littered with countless laugh out loud moments. It takes the reader on a rollercoaster ride of non-saccharine sweet ups and downs, delivered with a strong Dublin accent and a healthy smattering of 'fecks' along the way.

Keyes delved back into the topic of addiction with This Charming Man. Her portrayal of an alcoholic mother pulls no punches. It might be popular fiction by name, but I doubt there is a better portrayal of addiction and the devastating impact it can have written in any other modern work.

Her other novels have not shied away from similarly dark themes. Over the course of her career Keyes has dealt with miscarriage, depression, domestic violence, suicide and bereavement. Yet she has managed to deal with all these topics in an accessible way - insightful, not heavy-handed. Ultimately, all these stories are told with an overwhelming sense of hope and redemption.

Obviously her fiction resonates. At last count, Keyes had notched up an estimated 22 million sales world-wide. As her writing career has progressed so has her style. Keyes is showing that she can evolve. Not only did she reinvent the genre with the arrival of Watermelon - she continues to lead the way with books like The Brightest Star in the World.

Keyes has always retained the ability to speak to her readers with painful honesty and humour - whether in her fiction or non-fiction. Just last year a blog post on her ongoing battle with depression sparked a plethora of articles in the national and international media highlighting the modern women's battle with the 'black dog'. In her own inimitable way, Keyes has made the unpalatable palatable.

In Chick Lit writing circles, Keyes is often referred to as the Queen - but there is no pretence with Keyes, no airs and graces. She is, in my opinion, an innovator and a heroine. She has no agenda other than to entertain, reach out and perhaps educate. Ireland's greatest writer, in every sense, is Marian Keyes.